Scottish island prepares for Syrian refugees

Rothesay used to be called ‘the Madeira of the North,’ back in the days when paddle steamers sailed up from the Glasgow coast bringing holidaymakers to the island of Bute. While the palm trees remain, Rothesay now looks like most faded British seaside towns. Paint crumbles on the façade of the Esplande hotel; many of the promenade shop fronts are empty as west coast Scotland rain lashes down.

Rothesay may not be the popular holiday destination it once was, but this town of around 6,000 people is preparing to welcome some new, and very unusual, arrivals – Syrian refugees, fleeing conflict at home to start a new life on a Scottish island 15 miles long and an hour’s ferry ride to the mainland.

While the House of Commons was voting on military action against the “Islamic State” (IS) group in Syria, 450 miles away on Bute locals were getting ready to welcome 15 Syrian families – the first substantial arrival in Scotland under new government plans.

four people pulling luggage along a street

Copyright: Getty Images/Ch. Furlong

A long, long way from home

Locals looking forward

“I’m excited. I’ve already started to learn a few words of Arabic,” Alison Clark, who works as a development officer at a local church, told DW. A former English teacher, Clark hopes to be able to offer English language support to the refugees once they have settled in.

The refugees – around 60 in total – are coming from camps in Lebanon, with a second batch due to arrive early in the New Year. All are being housed by the local council in and around Rothesay, which is the main settlement on Bute. The council estimates that there are around 40 empty properties on the island.

The decision to house the Syrian refugees on Bute is part of a wider Scottish Government commitment to take a third of the 1,000 Syrians that UK Prime Minister David Cameron says will be brought to the UK before the end of this year. The refugees are arriving on five-year humanitarian visas and will be free to travel. Each family has been vetted and given a medical assessment by the UK Home Office and the UNHCR.

With only three Arabic speakers on the whole island, setting up translation services has been a priority on Bute. Around 20 Syrian children will be attending the local school, Rothesay Joint Campus, which has a student body of around 600. A video showing a child’s view of living on Bute has been produced and will be shown to the refugees on the flight to Britain.

a child standing between adults

Copyright: Getty Images/Ch. Furlong

The start of an adventure?

Perfect opportunity

“The majority of the children who are coming over are younger, so it’s the perfect opportunity for them to pick up the language,” Julia Fisher, head teacher at Rothesay, told DW. “Parents have been really positive. They are going to organize a uniform collection to ensure they have all got uniforms for starting in January.”

Local council workers have spoken to a Scottish imam to find out about the religious requirements of the refugees, who are all Muslim. A source of halal meat has been identified and one of the local churches has offered its hall for new residents to worship.

Meanwhile, around 60 locals will run a “pop-up” community center to support the refugees. “We will be there during the day in the background as and when the families want us – but we will very much take our cue from them and what they want to do,” says one of the volunteers, John Duncan.

Bute has an elderly population, and like much of the rural west of Scotland has a major problem with depopulation. Many young people leave to be educated on the mainland. Few return and jobs on the island are scarce. Rothesay is among the poorest places in Scotland and there is even a food bank on the island, giving out supplies to those struggling to make ends meet.

The local council sees the refugees as part of an attempt to repopulate the area. “Rothesay is not full up, Argyll and Bute is not full up, Scotland is not full up,” says local SNP MSP Mike Russell.

Migration history

Bute itself has a history of migration – Poles came to settle there during World War II with Germans and Russians arriving soon after. Clelland Sneddon, executive director of community services for Argyll and Bute Council, said the families have been selected to try to make sure that there is not too much of a culture shock.

two women on a street

Copyright: Getty Images/Ch. Furlong

The islanders have been very positive about the new arrivals

Sneddon said that the refugees were not “city dwellers” from Damascus so hopefully won’t find it too difficult “suddenly pitching up in Bute in a rural idyll. We have got people who are from smaller towns or rural backgrounds and therefore we think the transition, the match, is a little better,” he said.

Not everyone is convinced that Bute will benefit from the new arrivals. Grace Strong, convener of the local community council, says there are “a couple of concerns” about the Syrian refugees, mainly around healthcare provision. Others complain that the local council has not provided enough information about the plans for the new arrivals.

But pupils in the local school are looking forward to sharing their classroom with young people from a completely different part of the world.

“It is such an interesting thing and it is great to be a part of it,” 17-year-old Jamie Murray told DW. “There is genuine excitement in the school. I didn’t understand the scale of the refugee crisis before – I was quite naïve in that sense. You just don’t realize how big it is.”

This piece originally appeared on Deutsche Welle.

Poverty in Scotland’s oil capital

Before the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s, Aberdeen was a regional town and nationalism a marginal concern. With weeks to go until Scotland’s historic vote on independence, Aberdeen is a city transformed. It’s Scotland’s oil capital and the city’s resulting wealth is apparent. But not everyone has benefitted from those riches. As Peter Geoghegan reports, life for some is a daily struggle.

Northern Ireland talks seek calm in festive season

As party talks reconvened in Northern Ireland this week to resolve old disputes over religious and national differences, a small business in Belfast is using mutual respect to bridge the gaps in this split society.

Loyalist protesters demonstrate against restrictions on flying Britain's union flag from Belfast City Hall in central Belfast January 5, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton)Restrictions on flying the union flag in Belfast has become a bone of contention

Last Christmas, protests over the removal of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall almost brought the city to a standstill. Hoping to reach a “meaningful agreement” before Christmas, senior United States diplomat Richard Haass is leading discussions with the five parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, in Belfast.

The talks are taking place against an increasingly restive backdrop: On Monday (16.12.2013), a firebomb ignited inside a Belfast city store.

Republican dissident group Óglaigh na hÉireann earlier claimed responsibility for a bomb that partially exploded in the city on Friday night. The blast followed a bomb scare in Belfast last week, and two separate attacks on Northern Ireland police officers in the city earlier this month.

Calm Christmas sought

Candles at Christmas in IrelandNegotiators are aiming for a calm Christmas

Haass, a former US special envoy for Northern Ireland, is expected to produce a series of recommendations for the Northern Ireland parliament to consider. These could include a framework for helping victims of the 30-year-long conflict, which has cost more than 3,000 lives.

Differences between Irish Catholics and Protestants with roots in Britain living inn Northern Ireland continue to simmer after decades of outright violence starting in the late 1960s, known as “The Troubles.”

Last month, Northern Ireland’s attorney general, John Larkin, suggested ending prosecutions over Troubles-related killings that took place before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The Historical Enquiries Team has until now dealt with such cases, delivering only a handful of successful convictions.

But the past is not the only issue on the table this week – parades remain an annual source of tension. A protest camp of loyalists, or those wanting to strengthen ties to Britain, has been in place at Twaddell Avenue in North Belfast since July, after a decision to restrict an Orange Order parade. It’s estimated that policing the camp costs 50,000 British pounds (60,000 euros) a day.

Many in Northern Ireland are hopeful that an agreement can be reached on parading, with abolition of the current Parades Commission and creation of a new parades body being the most likely outcome. However, the issue of flags could prove far more difficult to solve.

Flag dispute reflects rift

Women draped in Union flags walk past a burning car after loyalist protesters attacked the police with bricks and bottles as they waited for a republican parade to make its way through Belfast City Centre August 9, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton)Violence during parades, like the aftermath of a riot pictured here, is an issue at talks

Last December, Belfast City Council voted to change its policy on flying the union flag, which represents support for the bond with Britain. Since then the standard has been flown at City Hall on designated days, rather than year-round as was previously the case. The move brought Belfast in line with most councils in Northern Ireland, including a number of unionist-dominated administrations.

Loyalists responded to the flag’s removal with a wave of protests. Although the demonstrations have abated – an anniversary protest last month attracted just 1,500 people – the flag remains a live issue. Recently, unionist councillors on Belfast City Council sent back official Christmas cards after they featured the image of a flagless City Hall.

So far, prospects for a deal appear shaky. Democratic Unionist Party leader and Northern Ireland first minister Peter Robinson said that there would be “steam coming out of my ears” in response to the idea that the draft document produced by Haass could represent the final agreement.

However, he added that he believed agreement was still possible. “Nobody is throwing the towel in at this stage,” Robinson said.

Politicians in the UK parliament warned that issues in Northern Ireland’s past would never be resolved if politicians fail to reach agreement.

“If we get it wrong we may never get another opportunity to address these issues,” Naomi Long – a member of the UK parliament for the centrist Alliance Party – told BBC. Long is also participating in negotiations at the Haass talks.

Breaking down the divide

The peace wall separating Catholic and Protestant communities on Cupar Way in Belfast (Photo: Peter Geoghegan)A “peace wall” separates Catholic and Protestant communities on Cupar Way in Belfast

Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society, despite the cessation of large-scale armed violence. In many working-class parts of Belfast, Catholic and Protestant communities remain separated by walls, fences and gates, known euphemistically as “peace walls.”

At Cupar Way in West Belfast, a peace wall has separated Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods since 1969. Both areas have among the highest rates of unemployment in Northern Ireland. But there are attempts to create new opportunities across the peace wall.

In 2011, women from both sides of the sectarian divide at Cupar Way came together to form the Belfast Cleaning Company. The business already has six staff members and 10 cleaning contracts. The key to its success is respect, founding member Alice McLarnon told DW.

“We respect each other’s culture,” McLarnon said. While she sees herself as Irish, her co-worker would see herself as British, but this doesn’t matter to either. “She sees me as a co-worker,” McLarnon said.

Alice McLarnon of the Belfast Cleaning Company (Photo: Peter Geoghegan)Alice McLarnon of the Belfast Cleaning Company (Photo: Peter Geoghegan)

The cleaning company is run as a cooperative: Every member has an equal say and an equal share. Although co-ops are not commonplace in Northern Ireland, their popularity is growing. Earlier this month, a cooperative taxi firm started in West Belfast with around 50 drivers.

For the Belfast Cleaning Company, the aim is simple – to grow the business, and build relationships across the peace wall.

“The goal is to create better employment along the interface, to have a better living way for the women,” McLarnon said. “When you create employment across the divide, you actually break down the divide,” says Alice McLarnon.

This piece originally appeared on Deutsche Welle.

State of the Union: Artists and Scottish independence

In 2014, Scotland will hold a referendum on whether or not to end the union with England. Artists have always played a role in national movements, so will they vote yes or no?

Mark Hogarth (left), Stuart Braithwaite, and Ken McCluskey at a debate over Scottish independence.
(Photo: Andrew Grindlay, for DW)

The Centre of Contemporary Arts is among Glasgow’s most popular venues. Earlier this week, a fashionable crowd of artists and “creatives” gathered at the center not to watch a band or to see the latest exhibition. They came instead to listen to a debate about what is fast becoming this season’s hottest topic among Scottish artists: independence.

In September 2014, Scotland will go to the polls in a referendum on whether or not to leave the United Kingdom. The Scottish National Party, which control the devolved parliament in Edinburgh, have spearheaded the drive for an independence vote and the country’s artists have been a vocal presence at the heart of the national conversation about whether Scotland should go it alone.

Going it alone

Polls suggest that around a third of Scots are in favor of independence currently, but support seems higher among Scotland’s creative community. Famous writers, poets and visual artists such as Liz Lochead, James Kelman and James Robertson have all come out in support of a ‘yes’ vote.

“I think there are a lot of people in the arts who are pro-independence,” Stuart Braithwaite, founder of Scottish post-rock group Mogwai told the audience at the CCA debate, which was organized and facilitated by Scottish social media platform Kiltr.

A picture of the panel at the debate
(Photo: Andrew Grindlay, for DW)Artists often play a role in national movements but will independence lead to less money?

Why independence?

Mr Braithwaite has been a prominent voice in favor of independence, particularly on Twitter where he goes by the handle @plasmatron. During the hour-long discussion he explained why so many artists are backing the independence cause.

“I’ve a theory about why that is. When you make art you are willing to go into the unknown. Independence is going to be a leap of faith,” the musician said.

“The unknown frightens people. Scottish people are quite cautious but not in the arts. You are willing to take a leap of faith, to imagine a better Scotland and a better future, take a blank canvas and imagine something wonderful on it.”

Politicising the artistic movement is ‘stupid’

At the debate though, speaking in favour of a “no” vote next year, Mark Hogarth, creative director at the clothing brand Harris Tweed Hebrides, said it would be “stupid” for anyone to try to politicise the artistic movement in Scotland.

“I work in branding. There’s nothing that strikes a greater chord than something that is new and nostalgic,” he said. “Independence is both of those things. Of course it’s going to strike a chord. It’s easier to get behind than the status quo.”

Mr Hogarth criticised the assumption that Scotland’s creative community is united behind independence. “There are artists and other individuals out there who have maybe not come to a conclusion yet. Perhaps the fact they have not been quite as voluminous as the independence campaign is no representation of how the artistic community actually lies,” he said.

‘Politically neutral’

The role of the arts in the independence debate has already caused controversy in Scotland. During the summer, Sir Jonathan Mills, director of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), said material related to independence would not appear at next year’s festival

“We would not wish our festival to be anything other than it has always been, which is a politically neutral space for artists. It is important that it remains that,” Mills said in an interview with a Scottish newspaper at the time.

The reaction to the director’s comments about next year’s program was quick, with many in Scotland’s artistic community questioning the idea that the arts can ever be “politically neutral.”

“I don’t think the EIF is going to be able to keep this issue out. We’ve got a year to make use of this opportunity to start a proper discussion,” novelist Denise Mina said at the time.

‘Settlers and Colonists’

“The arts are one of the places where we can discuss the more abstract notions. It’s a real missed opportunity by Jonathan Mills. It’s fearful and it’s shameful.”

Audience at debate in Glasgow on the issue of Scottish independence(Photo: Andrew Grindlay, for DW)Judging by the crowd’s response, there were more cheers for the ‘Yes’ camp

The four-person panel at the CCA debate in Glasgow featured another person whose views on Scotland’s constitutional destiny have grabbed headlines: writer and illustrator Alasdair Gray. In an essay entitled “Settlers and Colonists” published late last year, Mr Gray suggested that since the 1970s, English men and women have been over-represented in the upper echelons of Scottish life, in “electricity, water supply, property development, universities, local civil services” and in the arts.

The avuncular, white-haired Gray was a firm favorite with the audience in Glasgow, even if not everyone agreed with his suggestion that culturally Scotland punches below its weight compared with similar sized countries such as Ireland.

Expressing some doubts about the push for independence, designer Emlyn Firth told DW “I don’t think everyone has completely thought through the ramifications of what might happen to the eco-system of contemporary art or design if we do go independent.”

‘The Glasgow miracle’

That eco-system is well represented in Glasgow. The city’s recent cultural regeneration has been so successful that renowned art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has dubbed it “The Glasgow Miracle.” Some in the “No” camp have warned that a vote for independence could jeopardize Scotland’s artistic achievements thus far; perhaps fearing that there would not be as much money around to achieve these kinds of “miracles” in an independent Scotland.

Alasdair Gray and Pauline McNeil
(Photo: Andrew Grindlay, for DW) Agreeing to disagree, Pauline McNeil feels independence will bring nothing to the arts

“Independence will bring nothing to the arts,” says Pauline McNeil former shadow minister for culture in the devolved Scottish parliament and an advocate of retaining the status quo at the CCA debate.

“Scotland and the arts community would flourish better by sticking with what we have now.”

All in all, judging by the reaction at the close of the debate – the two ‘yes’ voices received the biggest cheers of the night – many in Scotland’s artistic community are still backing independence. But there is a long way to go between now and polling day on 18 September 2014.

This piece originally appeared on Deutsche Welle.

Serbs still find it hard living in Kosov

Mitrovica is a Kosovan city divided in two: Serbs live in the north, Albanians in the south. It’s the flashpoint for Serb reluctance to be living in a Kosovan state.

Serbian municipal building in North Mitrovica.

Back in the days of socialist Yugoslavia, Mitrovica was a rather prosperous city. On the outskirts of town, the vast Trepeca mines were one of the largest industrial complexes in the country, while Mitrovica itself was home to Albanians, Serbs, Bosnians, Turks and other minorities.

Today, the name Mitrovica is synonymous with division. The Ibar River has become a de facto border since the war in Kosovo ended in 1999, separating a mainly Albanian population in the south from majority Serb North Mitrovica.

On Sunday (17.11.2013), voters in North Mitrovica went to the polls in a repeat election, called after violence and intimidation marred voting in the town earlier this month. The election was seen as crucial for the Brussels agreement – which was signed between Serbia and Kosovo in April – but many of the around 20,000 ethnic Serbs in north Mitrovica are wary of any change to the status quo.

“A huge majority of the people are against any sort of tight connection with Pristina,” says Oliver Ivanovic, who was standing for mayor of North Mitrovica and won enough votes to contest a run-off on December 1. “Pristina is there, we cannot underestimate that fact. We are part of Kosovo as long as Kosovo is part of Serbia.”

Serb resistance

Like Serbia itself, the vast majority of the 40,000 ethnic Serbs spread across the four municipalities of north Kosovo refuse to recognize Kosovo’s independence, which was declared in 2008.

“No Serbs recognize Kosovo independence,” says Ivanovic. “We have to live with this fact, which is not pleasant. [But] because there is no alternative, the Serbs will not leave here.”

Over the past 14 years, North Kosovo has developed in isolation from the rest of the country. Here Serbian flags fly and signs in Cyrillic and English proclaim, “This is Serbia.” A system of parallel structures, funded by Belgrade, provides everything from schools and health to the courts system.

Oliver Ivanovic, mayoral candidate for North Mitrovica.Oliver Ivanovic says it all starts with controling the car parking

But almost a decade and a half of isolation has taken a toll, too. Cars, many without license plates, clutter up footpaths. With a weak rule of law, lucrative illegal trades have flourished in everything from fuel to firearms.

“Putting law and order on the street means fixing the streets and parking space,” says Ivanovic. “Our fight for improvement in law and order starts with parking. You have to make it clear to people that things are changing. That Mitrovica is changing.”

‘Different people with a different culture’

The division of the town has come at a big social price says Sinisa, an ethnic Serb primary school teacher who didn’t want his surname used: “Before the war the town was organized in a proper way. All the facilities were shared around the town but by dividing the town, now we just have the general hospital and all the other facilities, two stadiums, sports hall, health centre, railway station, everything is in the south.”

memorial in North Mitrovica to ethnic Serbs killed in the Kosovan war. Memories are long, but it’s not that long ago that Serbs died in the Kosovo war

But Sinisa has no desire to return to how things were before the conflict: “I don’t want to be integrated. I am satisfied with life here. Yes, my neighbors can come, we can co-operate and work together but at night they go and sleep in their part of town. They are different people, with a different culture.”

Commerce offers the best opportunity to bring Albanians and Serbs together, says Niall Ardill, a former business lecturer in North Mitrovica’s university who recently completed a study on the private sector in north Kosovo.

“The business community is more advanced than the political community,” he says as he stands beside the main bridge connecting north and south Mitrovica. A huge mound of earth and stone has blocked the bridge since 2011, when Kosovo police attempted to take control of border crossings.

No money

Around 30 per cent of companies in the north trade with the rest of Kosovo. But twice as many would like to. “We have found that companies that trade with the south really benefit,” says Ardill.

The main barrier is not politics, it’s capacity: “A lot of the processes and procedures they use might be outdated so that’s something that needs to be looked at from an investor point of view and from an international donor point of view.”

In the mixed north Mitrovica neighborhood of Bosniak Mahala, local shopkeeper Artan Maxhuni, an ethnic Turk, complains that the biggest problem for his clothing business lies with the wider economy.

“The economic situation in Kosovo is bad, really bad,” he says. “Everywhere in Kosovo is bad, not just in Mitrovica, but Mitrovica is especially bad.

“I have Serb customers, no problem, but people have no money.”

Just past the armed Italian police that keep a constant vigil on the bridge over the Ibar, in largely Albanian south Mitrovica, Aferdita Syla, executive director of Community Building Mitrovica, is trying to nurture cross-community links in the divided city.

“In July we brought 40 kids on an activity – 20 from the north, 20 from the south,” Syla remembers. “Their first reaction when they met each other was, ‘Wow, they are normal.’ Because for a long time they had no contact with each other, they thought the other was not human.”

But in a divided city, making connections is easier than keeping them. “They don’t have this daily contact. That is where we are lacking. We have to cross this bridge more.”

This piece originally appeared on Deutsche Welle.